As a child I was never terribly good at waiting for things. It seemed a hard lesson to learn. At the start of Advent, I would receive my advent calendar and begin that wonderful countdown to Christmas Day, when the big double doors would open on the stable scene. But it was very hard not to peek at it beforehand. Opening one little door or window in the advent calendar each day was looked forward to with great eagerness. I do remember having to work quite hard to resist not opening them all up too soon!
Scouring the internet for films that a friend and I might go and see, we came across the film ‘Maudie’. The description did not sell it as well as it might: ‘Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a fishmonger (Ethan Hawke) while working for him as a live-in housekeeper.’ I think I imagined some very gentle romance, during which I thought it possible I might actually fall asleep!
When this is published we may have a clearer sense of the government being formed post the election. I write this just two days after the result so we currently know it is a hung parliament, with some sort of alliance, a ‘confidence and supply’ deal most likely, between the Conservatives and the DUP. But we know that a week is a long-time in politics – haven’t we experienced that this last year? So by the time the July-August edition of the magazine is out, who knows whether in fact it will be a different scenario? We wait and see. Leadership contests, another General Election – these are possible as the situation unfolds.
Have you ever had opportunity to stand in a tomb? Possibly an offer you wouldn’t want to take up! I have – in Jerusalem, in a place called the garden tomb, which probably isn’t where Christ was laid, but is probably something very like it. I remember being struck at the time that as you entered the tomb, you faced darkness, gloom, dankness. But as you turned around, the doorway became a frame for a stream of light dancing outside. That doorway was a threshold. I imagined the women at the tomb on Easter morning, having entered it and discovered bewildering absence, turning around, and seeing early dawn breaking through the doorway. Then in the stream of light, messengers of God are glimpsed (which is what the word ‘angel’ translates as) to tell them absence and darkness do not have the last word. Everything is shot through with the presence of God and through the resurrection of Christ, new life infuses everything. And then I imagine the women crossing that threshold, into the light.
At the end of last summer I went to stay with my friend Steve in America. Steve runs what in this country we would call ‘Forest Church’ – a congregation that gathers in the middle of the forest and is learning to engage with Christian spirituality through nature. I went along for one of the Sunday services. We met together, gathered around a tree stump which formed Steve’s altar. We prayed and opening prayer, listened to a couple of readings – one from scripture and also a beautiful poem. Instead of a sermon time, we spent time simply enjoying the forest – contemplating nature. Some drew, others wrote, others sat and meditated. One of the children created a ‘sculpture’ of Forest Church, with leaves and stones and things he had found in the forest representing all of us who gathered there. It was a peaceful, sunlit Sunday morning, and through our activities and prayers, God was worshipped.
Since the clocks went back in October, we have been watching the darker winter nights draw in. Part of me finds winter difficult: I miss the sunlight and warmth. But there are evenings when the fire is lit, and a different mood prevails. Somehow the firelight creates a cosiness and safety. The darkness outside doesn't disappear, but it keeps its place. Those wonderful words from John's Gospel come to mind, 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never put it out.'
Over the last couple of months, I have been thinking about human dignity. I recently went to visit my friend with whom, a few years ago, I went out to Tanzania (do come and hear more about my trip on 21st October when I shall be sharing stories and photos in the Amberley Parish Room as we enjoy a curry together). She had just returned from a six-month stay, and was discussing with me how it was so important that second-hand clothes which are shipped out are of really good quality, and of the issue of choice. We have so much choice, and can try things on in different sizes until we get the exact fit, she said, but there was a temptation to think 'anything goes' when it comes to charity. Sometimes things are so desperate, that yes, it can feel that way. But one of the joys in the work we did in Tanzania - and it was the poorest part of Tanzania with dreadful poverty - was that we helped to clothe some of the children in bright newly-made clothes that made them laugh with delight. It's a message that says, you are not second rate, but deserve the best - as the advert used to say, 'because I'm worth it'! For me, human dignity is very important and part of what every human being should have - the right to be treated with dignity, no less than anyone else. This is the Gospel - good news that supports the flourishing of all human beings and all of creation. God's love which wants each of us to know in God's eyes 'we are worth it'. We are worth the very best.
You will know the old rhyme about the 1605 plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament: ‘Remember, remember, the 5th of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’ The remembrance of that event has quite a history! From1606, the King and Parliament commissioned an annual sermon to remember the event: the Gunpowder Plot Sermons. Thankfully, Common Worship today does not require we preach on it and denounce popish practices, or celebrate torture and killing associated with the event! But society has kept the tradition of burning a guy on the bonfire, an effigy of Guy Fawkes: something that has become so far removed from the burning of an actual human being that we mostly do it without thinking too hard. This dates to 1605, when people in London lit bonfires to celebrate the survival of James 1 in the attack, and it soon became law, in the ‘Observance of 5th November Act’, an annual public day when thanksgiving was given for the plot’s failure.
I hope Amberley and Box forgive me for beginning my letter with news of the re-ordering of the church at Minchinhampton, but as a benefice together who now enjoy more services and functions together, this is exciting news for all of us. It will feel, of course, terribly disruptive for the next few months, because everything is different. Holy Trinity Church in Minchinhampton is definitely still functioning however, even if the church part of the building is closed off, because ‘the church’ is, of course, the people who worship. We will still be doing that – Sunday 10am at the school, and everything else taking place in the Porch Room. Yes it will feel odd, and the Minchinhampton Church community will feel somewhat displaced. But I think these next few months could also be a real opportunity if we approach it in the right spirit.
By the time this appears in the June edition of the magazines, I am hoping I shall on some level be back ministering within the benefice on a gradual phased return. The first thing to say is how grateful I am for everyone who picked up much in my absence: Revd Sandy Emery and Parish Administrator Christine Gibson have ensured everything has run smoothly, for which I am immensely grateful. Thanks need to be given also to the church wardens of both parishes, and to the wider clergy and reader team, who all contribute so much and have helped enormously in covering my absence, and who continue to do so as I gradually resume duties.
Driving to my sister’s house on Christmas Day on the M5, after all the services were complete, I found myself suddenly feeling a dramatic leftwards pull on my car, and a ker-clunk ker-clunk sound started up which I knew was distinctly unhealthy! I sensed my control of the car slipping and made my way across the lanes of (admittedly low) traffic to get onto the hard shoulder – at the same time as having a distinct memory of my mobile phone left sitting on my upstairs window sill at home: the only place I get any reception!
It is hard to believe as I enter my third year here as Rector (three years in February!) that we are at the start of another New Year. It is a time when many of us take opportunity to reflect on the past and look towards the new. There may be things from this last year we need to leave behind, and there may be things we are excited about carrying on into the new season. It is always good to pause a moment, on the threshold of the turn of the year, to gather our bearings. We can never know what the year holds for ourselves, our nation and our world. But we can orientate ourselves and determine those things we wish to do or be differently this year. There is a sense both that we have come full circle, and that we can begin again, learning from and being enriched by the past.
When I was a child, I was once summoned to the staff room, and told I'd been selected to have some violin lessons. I was duly presented with a violin and allowed to take it home. To this day, I am not sure why! I assume a peripatetic teacher offered some free lessons to a school to encourage interest in taking up a musical instrument - or perhaps funding had come in and I was lucky enough to be chosen. I thought it the most beautiful instrument. I immediately loved its shape, its feel. I remember fingering the bow to feel the texture and stroking the body of the violin, hardly daring to believe I had been trusted with such a thing of beauty.